Veganism, Year Fifteen: Vegans with Attitude
Fifteen years and two weeks ago, I became a vegan. In what I now call my veganniversary posts (see 2022, 2021, 2020 plus followup, 2019 plus followup, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and the original announcement in 2008 plus followup), I have taken this moment each year to reflect on life as a vegan, the politics of veganism, the changing attitudes among non-vegans about veganism, and so on.
This year's entry was delayed by Dorf on Law's hiatus and by the time-suck that has been my relocation to Toronto for the upcoming year (or longer), but here I am, a nominally-retired vegan living abroad, reflecting on 15 years of being a vegan. What's new, eh?
I took the photo below at a bus stop in Amsterdam last summer. It made me laugh, of course, but it also struck me as an important change in the public relations of veganism. One of the most inaccurate, stale jokes that people tell about vegans is that we all spend our time talking about nothing but veganism and our presumed moral superiority. Aware of the staying power of that myth, most of us have overcompensated by being extremely reticent in conversation, often not mentioning it at all and, when it does come up, bracing ourselves for the inevitable awkwardness that obliges us to reassure people that they are not absolutely horrible for not being vegan.
This Dutch ad campaign, then, is a loud-and-proud statement that turns the irreducibly defensive "We assure you, vegan food tastes good!" public-relations reassurances into a fun, hell-yeah moment. Notice that the foul-mouthed vegan is happy and confident -- and most of all, that she is not a hipster (of which there are many in the Netherlands). This is mainstreaming in the best way possible. Again, there is still a lot of playing defense here, but it can be done in a fun and memorable way. It is the attitude also captured by a vegan-only takeout joint in Toronto that is named Soy Boys: a classic "We'll take what you intend as an insult and run with it" approach to being marginalized.
But of course, the usual nonsense is everywhere. In several of my veganniversary posts, I have described various ways in which anti-vegan attitudes crop up all around us (such as the aforementioned "Vegans are always trying to bore us by shoving their superiority in our faces" trope). And earlier this year, we saw a somewhat bizarre variation on non-vegans' tendency to justify their non-veganism.
In May, the editorial board of The Washington Post decided to take a premature anti-vegan victory lap by writing about the plant-based meat industry: "Where’s the beef? Here’s why the fake meat fad sizzled out." Get it? Sizzled out?! My sides are still aching from the convulsive laughter. But what is this "fad" of which they speak, and how do we know that it is over? One thousand words later, it is still a mystery.
Before diving in, however, consider that this is an essay signed by the main editorial board of The Post, not an invited one-off from a factory farming front group (or one of The Post's stable of right-wing columnists). They decided that it was important to weigh in on alternatives to eating animal flesh and to smirk about why vegans are not making progress as quickly as many of us would have hoped. This is a vanity moment without any purpose other than making themselves feel better about their indefensible choices. Good use of your time, WaPo!
The factual starting point of the piece is that the Beyond Meat company's market capitalization had recently fallen from its initial dizzying highs. That, however, is the story of one company and its internal finances, not about the industry as a whole. The only interesting fact offered by the editors is this (which they could not present without adding tendentious spin):
American retail consumers bought 8 percent less fake meat in 2022 than in 2021, according to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit created to promote alternatives to animal products, and only 63 percent were repeat customers. The novelty has worn off, and people are no longer excited about trying highly processed foods that cost more and don’t taste as good as the meats they’re trying to imitate.
The embedded link under "novelty has worn off" takes us to an even more snarky piece from Bloomberg in January, which not only used the "fad" framing but placed a photo of a frozen Beyond Burger at the top of the column -- as if frozen-solid animal meats look appealing! But what is the evidence that this year-on-year leveling out of what had been rapid growth is a permanent "end of a fad," especially when the decline happened during the latter phases of the pandemic, ongoing supply chain shortages, and endless media/Republican hype about "historic levels of inflation"? When everyone is cutting back, it is hardly surprising that fewer people are willing to try something that is wrongly denigrated as weird or niche.
The Post’s editors, however, are here to help. They say that the supposed bursting of the "fake meat" bubble is a teachable moment, because "[f]uture innovators can learn from these five struggles." In their zeal to see doom where there is almost certainly only a statistical blip, they tell us that (1) "The taste, texture and smell of fake meat are unappetizing," (2) "It’s too expensive, (3) "The ingredient lists are too long," (4) "It’s hard to shame adults into eating something," and (5) "Fake meat isn’t well-suited to American culture." As tempting as it is to refute each assertion in extreme detail, I will somewhat restrain myself.
The first statement is a bald assertion by the board that is supported only by a report from a "market research firm" claiming that only 20 percent of survey respondents "think plant-based meats are tasty," along with some broad assertions about the smell and taste of specific products. Maybe that market research was independent and not financed by the meat industry, or maybe not. But I can say that there are vegans who refuse to eat Beyond Burgers precisely because the company so accurately captured the smell, taste, "mouth feel," and everything else of animal flesh.
In other words, those plant-based burgers are repellent to people who are repelled by animal meat! From my perspective, I too find that Beyond Burgers uncomfortably remind me of animal flesh-based burgers (which the editors insist on calling "real meat"), but I consciously set that aside because I know that they are in fact cruelty-free. In any event, the editors' conclusory claim that plant-based meats did not sell as well in 2022 as in 2021 because ... they're icky, I guess ... is silly.
I will leave aside (2) simply because that it was economies of scale are all about (and things like The Post's editorial make matters worse), while (3) is simply a hoot. Americans are not buying as much of a product because the ingredient list is too long? Has anyone at The Post met an American? They then claim "that reducing salt and fat will make it taste even worse" (taking that extra swipe at the question of taste), and then they say that a product that the meat industry has been trying to denigrate through public relations campaigns is not viewed as positively by the public as it once was. Shocker.
The fourth point -- "It’s hard to shame adults into eating something" -- merely validates one's suspicion that the writer(s) of the editorial are lashing out at vegans for "shaming" people. They then add that "[e]mphasizing climate change in marketing materials entangled the industry in the culture wars. Cracker Barrel faced customer blowback last summer, for example, when it introduced Impossible sausage." This is not even relevant to the point that it is supposed to support, and more importantly, the message here is apparently that one of the major selling points of a new product should not be mentioned because the insane American right will politicize even something as simple as adding a product to a menu (not taking anything away from non-vegans).
And speaking of American culture, the editors in their point (5) take us through a brief history that includes some actual (but not literal) hippie-punching -- "In the 1970s, amid elite hysteria about a population bomb that never detonated, hippies embraced fake meats." -- that somehow includes dunking on people who had genuine reason to worry about population growth. But again, they claim that "[f]ake meat isn’t well-suited to American culture" by saying that it has not been popular in American culture. So because it has not happened, the explanation is apparently that we are culturally immune to change.
The editors' conclusion is that it is absolutely pointless to try to produce plant-based meats, and "[i]nstead of replicating beef, offer something different and tastier." And if the plant-based meat industry took this advice, what then? We would be back to the assertion that a vegan diet is too one-dimensional, just a bunch of sprouts on a supposedly boring salad.
And what about animal flesh? "More than 100 start-ups are working on such cultivated meat products, and we’re hopeful they can pioneer the next generation of food production." When that happens, will the editors and their ilk be happy? I suspect that they will then spend their time trying to convince their readers (and themselves) that lab-grown meat is not quite tasty enough, that Americans will reject it for "cultural" reasons, and that it is kinda gross to think about eating something fleshy that was never part of a living creature. Besides, do we really think that the right-wing culture warriors will leave lab-grown meat alone?
The bottom line is that there was only the thinnest of factual bases for The Post’s editors (or Bloomberg, or the other sources that they cite) to claim to see the end of the road for plant-based meats. The self-consoling tone of the writing is almost sad, and the bottom line seems to be: "Plant-based meat always seemed weird, so we're glad to see it fail."
This is what counts as a top-tier newspaper's lead editors' take on an issue with implications for public health, the environment, and morality -- ethical concerns, by the way, show up exactly once and decidedly as an afterthought, with the recommendation to try to "make real meat production more efficient and ethical." Outside of the editors' fevered imaginations, meanwhile, it is easier and easier to find vegan foods in even medium-sized and smaller cities in the US and elsewhere.
Vegans have been playing nice for a long time, but as our Dutch friend might put it, we are only trying to get people to eat "tasty m*** f***" food. Why apologize for that, when the animal eaters are not even embarrassed about their lack of evidence or reasoning?